I'm Too Busy: A Column for All to Contemplate
A Classic Article on Time Usage and Human Relationships
James, Muriel and Jongeward, Dorthy (1971). BORN TO WIN:
Transactional Analysis with Gestalt Experiments.
Reading, Massachusetts, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, pp. 56-63.
THE HUNGER FOR STRUCTURED TIME
Being bored for a long time hastens emotional and physical deterioration in much the same way as inadequate stroking does. To avoid the pain of boredom, people seek something to do with their time. What parent has not heard a bored child whining, “Mama, what can we do this weekend?” What worker hasn’t heard another one say, “I hate this job when there’s not enough to do.”
People structure their time in six possible ways. Sometimes they withdraw from other people; sometimes they engage in rituals or pastimes; sometimes they play psychological games; sometimes they work well together; and occasionally they experience a moment of intimacy.
A person can withdraw from others either by removing himself physically or by removing himself psychologically, withdrawing into his fantasies. Withdrawal behavior can come from any of the three ego states.
Withdrawal is sometimes a rational Adult decision. Everyone needs some time to be alone, to relax, to think his own thought, to take stock of himself, and to be rejuvenated in his humanness. Even withdrawal into one’s fantasies is often legitimate. A good fantasy may be better use of time than listening to a bad lecture.
Withdrawing is sometimes based on copying parents. In this case, the person does what he saw his parents do.
For example, a man threatened by conflict with his wife, may withdraw as his father did when his mother got bad. He may leave the house, retire to the shop, or simply go to his study. Or, instead of physically leaving, he may go to sleep or simply “tune out” his wife not hearing what she says.
Withdrawal patterns also come from the Child ego state. These are often replays of a person’s childhood adaptations out of the necessity to protect himself from pain or conflict. They may also be the result of training. A child trained to “Go to your room and shut the door and don’t come out until you have a smile on your face” learns to withdraw either physically or psychologically behind a forced smile.
When a person withdraws psychologically, it is often into a fantasy world. His fantasies are likely to be of uncensored pleasure or violence, creative imaginings, or of learned fears and catastrophic expectations. Everyone withdraws into fantasy from time to time. Who hasn’t imagined all those great things he “could have” said? Who hasn’t engaged in some fanciful, uncensored pleasure?
Ritual transactions are simple and stereotyped complementary transactions like everyday hellos and goodbyes. If someone says, “Good morning, how are you?” he is, in most instances, not actually inquiring into the other person’s health and feelings; he is expecting to receive a ritualistic response, “Fine, how are you?” In this brief encounter, both persons get maintenance strokes.
Many rituals of this nature grease the wheels of social interchange. They give strangers a way of coming together, they save time in figuring out who should go first or be served together, and so forth. Some cultures, church groups, political parties, secret orders, and social clubs structure a great deal of tme with highly ritualistic patterns of behavior. Other groups are less structured using their time in other ways. For many people, rituals become a way of life. After the ceremony is long past, the marriage may be only a series of ritualistic transactions consisting mainly of role-playing, f actions devoid of meaning and intimacy, yet keeping the people alive with minimum strokes.
Pastime transactions are those in which people pass time with one another by talking about innocuous subjects, such as the weather. Who hasn’t seen two old men sitting on a park bench avidly discussing politics, The government ought to straighten out this mess…!” Who hasn’t heard two parents passing time sharing common prejudices,“Aren’t kids terrible today. The way they…” In both cases the persons may exchange opinion after opinion with total disregard for the facts and enjoy every minute of it. Pastimes are relatively safe; these superficial exchanges are often used between people who don’t know each other well. For example, at a dinner party it is not uncommon for the men to pass the time talking about occupations, cars, sports, or the stock market, while the women pass the time talking about recipes, children or decorating.
Pastimes, as well as rituals, are ways people spend time together politely without getting involve at a deeper level. They provide the opportunity to “psych” each other out for the possibility of further involvement in games, activities or intimacy.
One “advantage” of playing psychological games is to structure time. Some games structure only five minutes of time.
For example, when a secretary plays Blemish with the boss, she takes a few minutes to point out to him that he always
forgets to put the “s” on the third person singular verb or that he misspells “absence.”
Other games, such as Debtor, can structure a lifetime. For example, when a young married couple play Debtor, they go into heavy debt for furniture, appliances, cars, boats and so on, and with each salary raise they go further into debt-a bigger house, two cars, and so forth. For a whole lifetime, no matter what they earn, they’re always in debt. When Debtors play a “harder” game, they may end up filing for bankruptcy or going to jail.
Activities are ways of structuring time that deal with external reality and are commonly thought of as work, getting something done. Activities are often what people want to do, need to do, or have to do:
collecting stamps preparing homework
milking cows balancing the ledger
getting dressed answering the mail
programming a missile cooking dinner
weeding the garden unloading a ship
building a birdhouse sewing a dress
drawing blueprints building bridges
When some of the above and other time-honored activities come to an end, a person frequently feels empty, restless, or useless. This problem comes into sharp awareness when certain time-structuring activities, such as caring for children, going to school, or holding a job, come to an abrupt end. Many mothers who completely fill their time with children and
household chores are overwhelmed with a sense of boredom, and inadequacy when the children grow up and leave home. Similarly, a father who devotes his life to being a breadwinner may suffer the same boredom and deteriorate rapidly after retirement.
In the midst of activities, different ways for structuring time can emerge. Rituals, pastimes, game and even intimacy may occur. For example, a vice-president can play Harried Executive on his job, saying Yes to so many requests that he finally collapses. In the meantime, he harasses and overworks his secretaries as well as himself. When Mr. Harried leaves the room, his secretaries may switch their typing and filing activities to a common pastime of Ain’t it Awful. “That guy! He says Yes to everybody, and we end up with a lot of extra work. Isn’t it awful.” When the boss re-enters the room, they may switch back to work activities or move to the ritual of a coffee break or withdraw into their own fantasies-perhaps angry ones-or initiate a game.
At a deeper level of human encounter than rituals, pastimes, games, and activities lies the potential that each person has for intimacy. Intimacy is free of games and free of exploitation. It occurs in those rare moments of human contact that arouse feelings of tenderness, empathy, and affection. Such affection is not just the warm sensation a person might get from a glimpse of shapely legs or broad shoulders. Intimacy involves genuine caring.
People can live or work together for many years but never really “see” or “hear” each other. Yet, a moment may come when one sees the other for the first tome—sees is coloring, his expressions, his many shapes, his movements, his differences. He may also hear the other for the first time—hear all his messages, verbal and nonverbal, emotional and factual. The sense of intimacy can occur in the midst of a crowd or in a continuing friendship, at work or in a marriage relationship. Intimacy may happen if:
A person at a concert briefly catches the eye of a stranger. For that moment they are aware of the bond mutual enjoyment. They smile openly at each other in a moment of intimacy.
A husband and wife at work weeding their garden experience a sense of closeness which spontaneously leads them to physical contact that validates their affection.
A father looks into the tear-soiled face of his son who has just buried his dog. He puts his arm around the boy and says, “it’s tough to bury a good friend.” The boy melts into his father’s arms, releasing his grief. For that moment they are close.
Two men work together for several weeks preparing an important proposal for the company. One presents it to the management and the proposal is rejected. When he returns, his colleague looks into his face, and without words a feeling of understanding for their mutual disappointment passes between them.
Any activities such as going to a concert, digging in a garden, burying a dog, or working on a proposal serve as a context in which intimacy can occur. In modern life intimacy seems rare, People who feel crowded in one way or another often seek “psychological” space. They may withdraw or resort to ritualistic living and use “keeping your distance” techniques. Even when jammed into a crowed elevator or train they remain distant, pretending not to see each other.
Intimacy is often frightening because it involves risk. In an intimate relationship people are vulnerable, and many times it seems easier to pass time or to play games than to risk feelings either of affection or of rejection. If the capacity for intimacy has been unnecessarily suppressed, it can be recovered. Through activating and strengthening the Adult ego state a person can change in spite of his early life experiences. Recovering the capacity for intimacy is a major goal of TA and is one of the marks of an autonomous person. Winners risk genuine intimacy.
Every infant needs touch to grow. Positive stroking encourages infants to grow into the winners they were born to be. Discounting encourages losers. Infants who are ignored or stroked negatively are encouraged to become losers. Unless there is a strong intervention and a decision to fight against the loser’s script, these people in turn, tend to produce other losers.
Your own mental and physical health are likely to be related to the ways you were touched and recognized. If you have negative patterns about touch or recognition and wish to expand our capacities, it is never too late to learn how.
Learning to change old habits of discounting is not always easy. However, a person can become aware of how he discounts himself and others and develop new patterns of transacting. Instead of giving an ulterior put-down, he can deliberately activate his Adult to check his destructive remarks and behavior. He can filter what he chooses to use from his Parent and Child ego states through his Adult. Instead of discounting, he can give positive strokes to others and even to himself. He takes responsibility for his behavior.
An actual parent who is trying to make this change usually needs more Adult data. He needs the skills taught in parent training courses .  He needs to study child development. He needs to watch more “successful”parents. He needs to work on transacting in nourishing ways.
When any person decides to do this, his messages become more appropriate to the situation—clear, undiluted, direct, and more relevant. He talks straight. When a little girl asks if she can wear her new dress, the parent states Yes or No with rational reasons. When a wife asks her husband when he’ll be home, he answers her with available data.
Time is structured in the process of getting, giving, or avoiding strokes. Withdrawal is a way to avoid strokes. Rituals and pastimes provide minimal stroking at a superficial level. Games are also a source of strokes—often negative. Activities and intimacy allow for positive strokes that are befitting a winner.
Copyrighted 2012: Cogswell-Cousert Consulting.